My brother, on his deathbed, could not get out of his mind the big things he’d screwed up in his life. Each would nag at him for a day or so until he seemed to come to terms with it, then he’d move on to some other mismanaged affair. Carl believed he’d mistreated his first wife, which he had, and he fretted that he’d ignored our aging father, which was also true. There was one event Carl never mentioned, though, and I wonder if he thought of it at all. The incident with Plato Winchester has troubled me more and more over the years. Perhaps at the end of my life, I will have to answer for both of us.
People used to say about Plato Winchester that you could drop him in the woods buck naked and hungry, and if you went back in a week you’d find him fully clothed and well-fed. He was a throwback to another time, a woodsman who could sling a gut hook and skinner with the grace of a TV chef filleting a trout. We thought of him as a modern-day Davy Crockett, though his life—as we knew it, anyway—lacked mythic proportions. Plato was not a romantic figure. His social wits were on the dull side and near as we could tell, he’d never had a woman’s company for more than a night. Diabetic, Ghandi-thin and prone to mood swings, he lived deep in the woods in a broken-down camper with nothing for company but his private thoughts and a posse of hog dogs. He came to town once a month for his pills, and when he did, people who didn’t know him cut him a wide berth. His beard was longer than the one you imagine for Methuselah and his clothes were holey and rough. A couple of times a year, to raise what little cash he needed, he’d sell off some boar that the dogs had hunted. Though he fed those plotts and curs from the pet food aisle in the grocery store, Plato would leave Brookshire’s grocery with nothing for himself but a can or two of beans. He named the dogs according to the alphabet, like tropical storms. The yellow cur he carried in his arms that winter was number sixteen, a young one he called Pip.
It was a Saturday just before Christmas, the year after 9-11, when a few of us were standing around in Frick Brothers hardware, as we often did, hiding from the honey-do lists back home. I remember quite well that Teeter Minkins was there, and Junior Pierce and my brother, Carl. We had known each other for a decade or more, and had fallen into a ribbing that was predictable but sharp. There were jokes about my thinning hair, Teeter’s big soft gut, the colored toothpicks Junior stuck in his mouth when he was trying not to smoke. Carl was the biggest needler among us. He was a sheriff’s deputy, and down there at the jail they made innuendo a high art. Junior was complaining about the three-day trip he was about to make to Dallas, a town he hated, when Carl interrupted him. “There you go again, leaving that good-looking wife of yours alone on a Saturday night. I got a mind to give her a call.” Nobody said anything. It was an old joke of Carl’s that he should have dropped, once the rumors started about Claudia.
Just then Plato came through the door, looking to buy some nails. He was building a lean-to. We were surprised he wasn’t whittling his own pegs.
Right off, Carl started in. Lately, he’d been leading us into new territory and that day he must have had a bee up his rear. My brother was an angry man, a boiling kettle with a tight lid. Once, I’d tried to talk him into meditating. I did it myself for a couple of years. “Lay off me, Jimmy,” Carl warned. He preferred to drink beer and pick at people.
Plato was an easy target. “Well, if it ain’t society’s dropout,” Carl said. “Wearing the same damn shirt as last time he come in. What corpse you steal it off of, anyway?”
“Man don’t need but two shirts,” Plato said. “Short-sleeve and long.” He showed a lot of teeth when he talked, and they looked to be in good shape for the kind of life he led. We figured him to be pushing sixty. Teeter, whose wife was diabetic, predicted someday Plato’s body would turn on him. Kidney, eyes or heart, it was just a matter of time.
Carl waved a hand in front of his nose. “The shirt needs a washing. Unless that puppy of yours got the farts.”
Teeter made a harrumphing sound from deep in his flabby chest. “When a dog cuts the cheese,” he said, “it don’t smell like B.O.”
“A healthy dog don’t fart,” said Junior. “Ain’t that true, Plato?”
“Anything that eats will fart,” Plato said. “Thing that smells around here is Carl.” His voice was squeaky and high, which we figured was the price of not using it much. He counted out some quarters for the nails and picked his young cur up from the floor. She nibbled at his beard. “I got things to do,” Plato said. “Not like you flapjaws.” He never hung around long for our kind of fun. He wouldn’t have understood our jokes, anyway. Plato never read a newspaper and the radio in his truck didn’t work. He kept his own counsel and kept to his beliefs, whatever they were. His life was admirable in its way.
And we were a shameful lot.
After that December morning, we didn’t see Plato again until February, just after the Columbia space shuttle came apart over our part of Texas. The debris fell everywhere; the town swelled with searchers. NASA had asked people to go into their yards and look. There was a number to call if you found something, and plenty of warnings about leaving everything right where it was, until somebody official could pick it up.
Five days into the mess, Plato showed up at Bostic’s store and said he had some shuttle parts in his pickup—bits of metal, pieces of foam, something he said looked like glass. Our group was in the store, warming up after a morning of searching in the cold and damp, wishing Roy Bostic had put in that coffee machine he kept talking about. Carl was buying Excedrin to keep himself awake. He was punchy. With all the chaos, he hadn’t had much sleep.
“I brought in what pieces I could,” Plato said. “Pip, she licked some, but I don’t think she hurt nothing.” Through the window we could see Plato’s three dark plotts scrambling around in the truck bed, tongues hanging out. The yellow cur was crawling on the steering wheel. “There’s eleven pieces,” he said. “One was still warm when I picked it up. I’m fixing to take them to the sheriff’s.”
Carl put one hand on the counter and the other on his hip. I had a feeling there was a piece of conniving working its way around his brain. “Well now,” he said. “That presents a problem.”
“I thought they were wanting it all back,” Plato said.
“Oh, they want it back all right. Trouble is, you weren’t supposed to touch it.” Carl looked full of himself, as he sometimes was with his deputy duties. He liked to take a man and turn him on his head, figuratively speaking. When Plato wasn’t looking, he winked at us, then at Roy. We should have stopped him, I know we should. “All this stuff is dangerous,” Carl said. “Probably radioactive. We’re going to have to confiscate your truck, and the dogs, too.”
The look on Plato’s face was one of surprise, but also defiance. The kind of man he was, he didn’t much believe in rules. “You’re not doing that,” he said. “You ain’t taking my dogs.”
“Got to do it. For everybody’s protection. And you’ve got to go over to Shreveport and get tested at the hospital.”
Teeter was struggling to hold back that giggly laugh of his. Junior had turned his head away; I thought he might explode. Roy ducked into the back of the store; he didn’t want any part of this. When Carl got started, there was no stopping him. He had his deputy game-face on, all serious. Teeter looked over at me with his fist to his mouth. We knew we were in for a humdinger.
“The thing is,” Carl said, “you probably took in so much radiation you might have only two weeks to live.”
I remember thinking then, he’s gone too far. I remember thinking, too, this is a hoot, one for the books.
“You’re not taking my dogs,” Plato said. There was a flash in his eyes. You’d think he’d have been speechless with the shock of it all. Instead, he was circling the wagons around life as he knew it.
Carl raised his voice. “Didn’t you hear me? You probably got only two weeks to live.”
Plato crept backwards toward the door. “Not my dogs.” He was turning red in the face.
“Well,” Carl said, “then you go on to the emergency room. They’ll know what to do. Better take the dogs with you. I bet they can test them, too.”
“Now Carl,” I said.
“I’m not going to no hospital,” Plato said. He headed for the door, but stopped long enough to say one more thing, the thing that made this story the fun it was to tell the whole next day. Turning around, he squared up and faced us. “If I’ve got only two weeks to live, I’m going to spend it hunting hog.” Then he bolted.
We all pretty much dissolved at this point, but I knew I better go get him. It wouldn’t take him long to get away.
He already had the engine running so I banged on the window. When he rolled it down I saw a pleated lampshade on the seat beside him. The oddity of that stuck with me.
“It was a joke,” I said. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
I thought Plato might blow his stack, but he just sat there for a moment, like he was recalculating everything he’d known up ’til now. The yellow cur was in his lap, licking on the steering wheel. “Okay, Jimmy,” he said. “Okay.” He stroked the cur’s neck. “Vulpecula and Anser.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “Carl gets carried away,” I said.
Plato held up his hand. A jagged scratch ran along the outside of his pinkie. “One of them pieces cut me. I put it here under the seat where the dogs can’t get at it.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said. “But you could go to the hospital and get checked out if you want. Get a tetanus shot or something.”
“They doing those tests like Carl said?”
“No. He made it all up. I swear.”
Carl and Teeter had come outside and were congratulating themselves. “Should have seen the look on your face,” Teeter said.
“You had me going,” Plato said.
“I ought to make you put every piece right back where you found it,” Carl said. “The NASA people, they wanted to know where everything landed. They wanted to map it all, pick it up themselves. You better take it to them. There’s some of them set up over at the fairgrounds.” He pulled a Marlboro from its pack and lit it.
I suppose each time Carl reached for a cigarette, his psyche perked up and his healthy cells groaned, as if one part of the body was at war with another. My brother had smoked since he was fourteen, a pack a day for much of his adult life. He wasn’t the first of us Hubbles to die that way. He told me once, toward the end, that he’d been expecting it. I knew if he could have quit, he would have. There was no mystery about his death. His lungs couldn’t take the abuse, no matter how much his brain might have wanted to live.
I know there are people who think emotions stick in our tissues, giving off signals that change the workings of the body. I think about the body’s misfires, messages that get sent and can’t be taken back, like words you wish you’d never let out. Carl and his first wife, Suzanne, had terrible fights—vicious rows, and him with his sharp tongue. He did damage he could never repair, not to her, not to him.
None of us know the forces at play within us. We see men who die from grief, and men who refuse to die, hanging on for dear life well past the time their doctors predicted they’d leave us. Day after day, sometimes year after year, their brains decline to hear the message that time is up. Maybe the brain catches hold of an idea and can’t let it go, no matter the physical evidence that contradicts it. What do any of us know about how the end truly comes about.
Plato never showed up at the fairgrounds to hand over his shuttle debris. When we found this out two days later, Teeter, Junior, Carl and I drove out to his camp in the south tip of the county. We thought maybe he hadn’t understood, or he thought Carl was joking about that part, too.
We discovered him propped against a tree, as though he’d just sat down to take a rest. The yellow pup was at his side. Doc Meadows couldn’t find a cause for his death—no insulin shock, no kidney disease, no heart attack. Plato would not have left his dogs willingly. “Sometimes people just die,” Doc said. “The body is a mystery.”
I would argue that the body isn’t all of the mystery, that there are parts of the mind the Almighty has drawn a veil around, at least for us mortals, at least so far. I believe in the spirit, in the connection between mind and body, and I believe if a man makes up his mind to live, he improves his chances against all odds. It helps if a man can know the lay of his land—if his cells are dividing when they shouldn’t, or if his heart is tired and needs a rest. My cardiologist, a man I’ve known all my life, has been frank with me about how much time I have left. Jimmy, he said, get things tidied up before Thanksgiving. Yesterday, I found a home for Plato’s yellow cur, who’s lived nearly all her long years with me. I’m divorced now and my kids are grown. When I’m gone, Pip will have a new family, one that knows her story, and ours, too.
I hope my subconscious believes something different from what the doctor told me. I hope it can pull me through a little while longer, into February, on to spring. Of the four of us jokers who were in Bostic’s store when Plato brought in what he’d found, I’m the only one still alive. If it leaves me holding the bag, then so be it. I am prepared to answer.
I never figured out the meaning of the lampshade in Plato’s truck. But among the constellations, Vulpecula is a fox, and Anser is a goose.